Editor’s note: Through March, Jennifer Niesslein (@jniesslein) is contributing interviews with interesting, “ordinary” people, who do extraordinary things worthy of the big screen—to complement our Winter 2013 issue. This installment features Kelly Howe, who works at a salon in Staunton, Virginia.
Pitch: If in every life some rain must fall, Kelly Howe has survived more than her share of deluges: the story of an unsinkable woman.
It’s staggering how many losses you’ve experienced, Kelly. Your mother left the family when you were a young teenager; in the early eighties, you lost most of your friends to AIDS (which was called GRID then); your first child died a few hours after her birth; your next child suffered a fever that left her with some cognitive disabilities; your ex-husband had a child with another woman while still married to you—and you were also pregnant. And all of this happened before the most recent tragedy. Can you tell me what happened with Heather?
We were quite the couple. We bought a house. We had two cars, two cats, two dogs, two kids—we were living the American Dream. She drove me crazy on many levels, but I just really loved her. Her soul touched me in a way that was different than anything I’d ever experienced in my life: the way that she looked at me, the way that she touched me, the way she understood me on so many levels. I’d never experienced anyone so beautiful in my life.
On the day of the accident, I had talked to her on the phone, and I said, “Look, you’re driving, you’re talking, you’re eating a piece of pizza, and I’m with a client right now. Hang up and drive. I love you.” She was on the phone with her friend in California when she wrecked—all [the friend] heard was, “Oh, shit.” I was at work and a state trooper came in at three o’clock.
She’d been airlifted to Charlottesville. My boss at the time said, “Get your purse.” We had the receptionist cancel the rest of the day, and we headed over the mountain.
At the hospital, being same-sex and not married, I was kind of afraid that they wouldn’t talk to me. But they didn’t blink an eye; they didn’t treat me differently than they would any other spouse. I kept saying to my boss, “I really hope her head is okay. I can take care of her even if every bone is broken, as long as her mind is okay.” The doctor took me to this side room, and he put up X-rays of her head and he said, “Your friend has had a devastating brain injury.”
I never looked at the car. I had my goddaughter’s mother go and get her Bible and other things out of it. I never looked at the coverage or anything.
At first, her mother and I became a great team. We had this trauma bond, and I believed in her and I could trust her.
Heather went to a nursing home nearby. Things started improving. They took her trach out. She still had a feeding tube, but she started coming around. Once I was sitting in a chair by her bed, and she moved herself into my lap.
When did things with Heather’s mother start falling apart?
Heather didn’t tell her mother about us for three years. When she did, her mother cried and carried on, and Heather said, “Mom, I’m not gay, I just really love Kelly.” So that statement she made in panic and shame came back to bite us. Her mother decided all she needed to do is pray with her and keep the evil me away and her soul would be saved.
She would say things like God was going to burn us. Heather’s Christian. I’m not, but I’d tell Heather that the God she believed in wouldn’t burn her.
Her mother moved her in the middle of the night and took her back to Detroit. She told me I could visit, but she said, “I do not want anyone to know you’re a couple because I don’t want her to be mistreated.”
I sent Heather a Valentine’s Day card. It wasn’t overtly sexual or anything. It infuriated Heather’s mother and she banished me from seeing her. The treatment team said, “Look, she was better when Kelly was involved,” so her mother had to let me back in. And Heather started improving again.
But she moved her again and eventually banished me.
None of the siblings could stand up to her. I hired attorneys and I did whatever I could, but from twelve hours away, it was a fight I couldn’t win. I chose to eat and get sicker and sicker and more isolated. I didn’t put makeup on for five years. I was killing myself with grief and frustration and a sense of failure. I just had to accept that this was a fight I could not win, and the only fight I could was the fight to save myself. I was still functioning as a mom, but I can’t say that I had any joy, really. There was a tremendous amount of survivor guilt, a tremendous amount of feeling that she was a better mom than me and that everyone would have been better off if I’d been the one in the car.
Would you say that this was your biggest loss?
It was certainly the loss that took the longest to bounce back from. I’ve never been all [in a funny voice], “I’m wild and proud and gay!” I just love who I love and I’d never felt shame. But now I felt persecuted in a way that even my weight never made me feel.
Seven years later now, after taking back my health and my career, I can see that none of that would have been possible if I’d been caring for someone with a traumatic brain injury. Ultimately Heather’s mother did me a favor, but I still don’t have any sense of closure. I would just like to be able to talk to her. Tell her how the children are. Tell her that we’re about to be grandmas. Tell her things that I know would bring her joy. Just to be with her—even though she’s different, she’s still there. She still needs my friendship. I never had any inkling of sexual feeling toward her after her accident. But that love and rapport is still there.
How do you bounce back?
I bounce back because my mother taught me to rely on myself and I taught me to rely on my sense of humor. I don’t believe in God, so I don’t have to wonder, “Why would God do this to me?” It’s not my belief system—instead, I believe that life is random.
Some people say I’m too honest and too open, but I don’t think so. I think I’m realistic. I think humans are humans, and they’re going to disappoint you and they’re going to upset you, and you have to deal with it.
What have you learned about people offering—or not offering—support?
You find support in the weirdest places sometimes. There are people who step up when you wouldn’t expect them to. Because we were such an important part of our community, the Baja Bean did a huge fundraiser for us and donated all of their proceeds. I had a client give me a check just so I wouldn’t stress. People kept doing things … Here we are in this small Southern town—the outpouring of love was astounding to me and that’s why I could probably never leave Staunton.
I think if I had any other sort of job, and if I wasn’t so nourished by the people who sit in my chair, it would have been harder. It’s not about hair. It’s about the connection you make with people. When you’re doing someone’s hair, you’re often the only person who touches him or her. When you touch people in a caring way, you develop a bond. Had I not been able to go and do something that gave me such a sense of accomplishment and reward, I’m not sure that I would bounce back from any of this stuff. It feels like one section of the world where I know what the hell I’m doing.
What would the movie of your life be like?
It would have to be a tragicomedy. When life knocks you down, you get up very calmly and say, “Bring it on—I’m going to take it, flip it, and make it work for me.” I just seem to keep bouncing back, and I think it’s because I love people. It would a tragicomedy, but it would be more funny than anything, even in the face of all the bullshit.
Who would play you in the movie?